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Italian perspective on Australia's asylum seeker shame

  • 12 June 2015

Over the last few months, I have been completing a Masters in International Criminal Law at the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) in Turin, Italy. Over the last two weeks, our classes revolved around human rights — always a bit of a cringeworthy topic when one comes from Australia.

Cringeworthy, because when the UN issues a report finding Australia to be in breach of the UN Convention Against Torture in respect of our treatment of asylum seekers, our Prime Minister publicly announces that Australians are sick of being lectured by the United Nations. 

Apparently we're also sick of the Australian Human Rights Commission, especially that pesky Gillian Triggs who keeps going on about children in detention. It appears now that we simply do not wish to hear anything about what happens in Australian detention centres — Parliament has made it illegal to tell us anyway.

By contrast, there is the country I have called home for the past six months. In that time, Italy has received tens of thousands of migrants arriving by boat from northern Africa. Italy's economy is one of the worst in Europe. It is struggling under the strain of the humanitarian crisis that is the unprecedented numbers of migrants arriving by sea. Yet the government does not turn to inhuman methods cloaked in a shroud of secrecy. Italy's approach could not be more different from Australia's.

Between January and October 2014, Italy's search and rescue operation was credited with saving 160,000 lives at sea. All of these people were received by Italy thereafter, including more than 12,000 unaccompanied minors. At the peak of boat arrivals to Australia in 2012, we received about 10 per cent of those numbers.

During its peer review before the United Nations Human Rights Council, no fewer than 39 countries praised Italy for its search and rescue activities at sea following the exceptional arrivals of migrants and for respecting their human rights. Australia was one of them.

Upon being rescued at sea, migrants are promptly brought to Italian territory. Despite the numbers arriving, as a general rule, asylum seekers are not held in detention. In 2013, only 6000 migrants were held in detention and of those, only 150 were asylum seekers. Children are almost never held in detention, only if they request it and a Juvenile Judge approves.

As of 25 November 2014, the maximum period of detention in Italy is 90 days. The average length of